YULI UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

How Yuli Gurriel's contract extension impacts the Astros moving forward

This appears to be a good deal for Houston. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Prior to the postseason series with the Minnesota Twins, the Houston Astros announced that impending free agent first baseman Yuli Gurriel would return on a one-year, $7M deal. The contract includes a club option for 2022 for $8M.

Gurriel was far from the biggest fish facing the market for the Astros -- that's still George Springer -- but first base was a legitimate question mark for 2021 and beyond. Taylor Jones has been uninspiring in his Major League cup of coffee and doesn't seem like a long-term solution, and nobody else in the system stands out either. That being said, Gurriel had the worst season of his career in 2020. Is it smart to depend on a 37-year-old to bounce back? Was 2019 an outlier or the beginning of regression? Could the Astros have found similar production for a cheaper price on the market?

Gurriel has one of the most unique batted ball profiles in MLB, making him a tough hitter to judge.

He relies on bat-to-ball skills. He's never had a K% worse than his 2020 mark of 11.7%, clocking in at 10.6%, 11%, and 11% the last three seasons. He had an 8.8% mark in his abbreviated rookie campaign in 2016. Even his career worst mark of 11.7% is elite strikeout avoidance, placing in the 97th percentile in MLB in 2020.

The dedication to contact comes with a consequence: he doesn't do a ton of damage.

Gurriel broke out for 31 homers in 2019, but remember, the baseball was "juiced" in 2019. There's evidence that the ball has normalized again in 2020, as home runs dropped 8% despite the entire season only being played in warm weather months. For most of his career, Gurriel has been a 15-homer type of hitter. He hit 6 homers in 57 in games in 2020, which would've put him in that 15-homer range over a full 162 game season if he kept at that pace.

That completely makes sense. Take a look at the ridiculous level of consistency here.

YEAR

BARREL %

HARD HIT %

EXIT VELOCITY

2016

3.4%

36.1%

88.8

2017

3.4%

43.6%

89.9

2018

1.9%

36.6%

89.3

2019

3.6%

38.1%

89.3

2020

3.7%

36.5%

89.3

It's almost impossible to be that consistent. Simply put, what story do these numbers tell? First, both the Barrel% and Hard Hit% are well below league average, especially the barrel numbers. His exit velocity is above league average, but it isn't special by any means. Gurriel is an "old school" player. He doesn't elevate the ball a ton, and he doesn't strike out a ton. If he played in the '80s, he'd be a household name and multiple time All-Star.

So, why are Gurriel's 2020 numbers so much worse than 2019?

  • Neutralized Baseball
  • Bad Luck
  • Plate Discipline

Gurriel never has been and never again will be a 30-homer player. Again, he's a line drive profile that doesn't swing and miss a lot. He's also not a .232/.274/.384 hitter as his 2020 line shows.

Gurriel's BABIP in 2020 was .235, which is way below his career mark of .291. BABIP stands for "Batting Average on Balls In Play", so in his career, Gurriel gets a hit 29.1% of the time the ball is in play. Just based off of luck alone, there's about .060 points in batting average out there to be had. If Gurriel hit .292 instead of .232, people would feel a lot better on the surface. That's the bad luck part of it.

Gurriel actually had a career best mark in Zone Contact%, making contact on 94% of the strikes he swung at, about 3.5% better than his career mark, and a 3% improvement on 2019. Where his discipline profile changed was his ability to make contact on pitches OUTSIDE of the zone. Gurriel's Chase% was right in line with his career marks, chasing 34.3% of pitches outside the zone, but his Contact% on those dropped a whopping 6% from 75.4% to 69.6%. For a hitter as consistent as Gurriel everywhere else, that stands out as a massive difference. He also inexplicably swung at "meatballs", which are pitches right down the middle, only 62% of the time, 13% lower than last year.

On top is Gurriel's 2019 swing profile. Right below it is Gurriel's 2020 swing profile. It immediately stands out how much more Gurriel swung at pitches up and out of the strike zone and on the outer-third of the plate. While his chase-rate was the same year-to-year, there's a clear problem area in 2020 compared to a spread in 2019. Pitches up in the zone also play up in velocity, which could show that Gurriel's hands are slowing down a tick if he's struggling to get to that pitch. He also swung at a lot of pitches on the outer-third, which isn't necessarily a pitch he's successful with. Gurriel makes his money on pitches on the inner-third, especially at Minute Maid Park with the short porch.

Luck alone will get Gurriel pretty close to the player that he was from 2016-2018. A refined approach, like telling himself to hunt pitches down and lay off pitches away until necessary, can get him to tap into something more. The neutralized baseball will keep him from being 2019 Yuli, but all-in-all, the contract for Gurriel looks like a good deal. He plays plus defense at first base, his numbers indicate he can still be a productive bat in the lineup, and the free agent market at first base isn't all that impressive. Carlos Santana and Anthony Rizzo -- who both had bad 2020s as well -- headline the market, with guys like C.J. Cron and Mitch Moreland representing the next lower dollar options. Rizzo and Santana would likely be more expensive than Gurriel. Cron and Moreland would be cheaper, but they're also not as good. James Click's first extension as General Manager looks to be the right move at first glance.

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Houston loses in San Francisco

Astros drop back-and-forth middle game to Giants to even series

Houston's offense couldn't keep up with the Giants on Saturday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

With the impressive win in the opener to start the series, the Astros entered Saturday's middle game against the Giants with an opportunity to not just secure the series but surpass San Francisco for the best record in the league. They'd have to wait to take that crown, as the Giants would out-slug the Astros to even the series.

Final Score: Giants 8, Astros 6

Astros' Record: 64-41, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jay Jackson (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Blake Taylor (2-3)

Teams trade blows early, Giants chase Greinke out early

The teams traded blows early in this one, with the Giants tagging Zack Greinke with six runs, all on homers. The first was a solo shot in the bottom of the second to start the scoring before hitting one in each inning through the fourth: two-run blasts in the third and fourth, then a go-ahead solo shot in the bottom of the fifth, putting them ahead 6-5 at the time. Greinke would face one more batter, allowing a single to end his lackluster day: 4.0 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 4 HR, 93 P.

Houston's offense kept things close to try and keep Greinke in a position to win, going up 3-1 in the third on a two-run Aledmys Diaz homer and another coming in on an error. After San Francisco scored four unanswered to make it 5-3, Diaz homered again in the top of the fifth to cut the deficit to one run before Yuli Gurriel would tie it with an RBI double.

Astros stay in it, but Giants even the series by winning the slug-fest

With Greinke exiting with no outs in the fifth, Houston handed the ball to Phil Maton, acquired in the recent Myles Straw trade, to make his debut for his new team. He worked himself into a jam, allowing a single and hitting a batter to load the bases with one out, but was able to get back-to-back strikeouts to strike out the side and strand all three runners, keeping it a one-run game.

That proved pivotal in the top of the sixth, as with two outs, Martin Maldonado would launch a game-tying solo homer, making it 6-6. Blake Taylor took over out of the bullpen in the bottom of the inning but would face just three batters, getting two outs while leaving one on as Dusty Baker moved on to Cristian Javier. Javier would watch the Giants retake the lead, getting back-to-back singles to bring in a run and make it 7-6.

Javier stayed in the game in the bottom of the seventh, allowing a leadoff single but erasing it by striking out the next three batters. Still a 7-6 game in the bottom of the eighth, Yimi Garcia made his Astros debut but did not keep the score there, allowing a leadoff solo homer to make it a two-run game. The 8-6 score would go final as Houston's offense came up empty again in the top of the ninth, setting up a rubber game in the finale.

Up Next: The series finale will get underway at 3:05 PM Central on Sunday in San Francisco. Luis Garcia (7-5, 3.19 ERA) will take the mound for Houston, going opposite Logan Webb (4-3, 3.36 ERA) for the Giants.

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